The idea that private negotiations to cut the deficit are somehow bad is fatuous and ill-considered
This week, Democratic and Republican congressional leaders began appointing the members of the so-called "supercommittee" -- the latest blue-ribbon commission assigned to tackle the deficit problem, this one created by the recent debt-ceiling legislation. Even before the appointments were announced, there was plenty of chest bumping from both sides, Republicans vowing never to consider tax increases and Democrats swearing to protect entitlement programs. So it's hard enough to believe that the supercommittee is going to manage to strike any kind of agreement.
But if there's one thing that could worsen the odds, it's the suddenly popular notion that the committee's deliberations ought to be thrown open to the public. "[F]rom the conversations I've had with the other leaders of both parties, I can tell you there's a strong commitment to having open hearings and a public process," House Speaker John Boehner told his members on Monday.
That's an absolutely terrible idea.
The committee's charge is to come up with $1.5 trillion in additional deficit reductions by November. It isn't hard to guess what sorts of ideas they'll consider because countless commissions before them have examined the problem and come up with a familiar list: cutting or eliminating big tax expenditures like the mortgage-interest deduction and the myriad special-interest provisions in the tax code; cutting (reforming, if you prefer) Medicare and Social Security, possibly through means testing and raising the eligibility age; cutting defense spending; and, of course, raising taxes, especially on the wealthy. And many more.
In fact, any reasonably intelligent high school student assigned the same task could draw on these earlier reports and probably produce a list not dissimilar to what the supercommittee might recommend (and do so with a lot less preening and drama). So the calls for transparency aren't grounded in any fear that the negotiators will hit upon some radical or dangerous new idea.
What's driving them is special-interest pressure. The current (and expensive) tax loopholes didn't get there by accident. Most got there as a direct result of lobbying on behalf of assorted powerful interests. That's what usually shapes the tax code. And that's why reforming it is so hard--by definition, you're working against these same powerful forces.
Anyone who genuinely cares about the deficit ought to welcome the idea of private negotiations, since these are far more likely to yield a positive result by creating a venue for candid exchange and limiting the input of the forces that ordinarily shape the tax code. It's the special interests that have the greatest investment in transparency, since that would allow them to pressure the negotiators and poison the political atmosphere in advance of any deal.
When healthcare is at its best, hospitals are four-star hotels, and nurses, personal butlers at the ready—at least, that’s how many hospitals seem to interpret a government mandate.
When Department of Health and Human Services administrators decided to base 30 percent of hospitals’ Medicare reimbursement on patient satisfaction survey scores, they likely figured that transparency and accountability would improve healthcare. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) officials wrote, rather reasonably, “Delivery of high-quality, patient-centered care requires us to carefully consider the patient’s experience in the hospital inpatient setting.” They probably had no idea that their methods could end up indirectly harming patients.
J.J. Abrams, the director tasked with bringing Star Wars back to the top of the crowded franchise heap, has always been happy to borrow. When he set out to make a new Star Trek and drag that moribund cinematic franchise back into blockbuster territory, he cheerfully swapped in some very familiar visual language to help it over the hill. Early on in the film, James Kirk (Chris Pine), nursing a desire to transcend his farmboy life, rides a motorcycle to see the U.S.S. Enterprise being built at a shipyard, and gazes up at it longingly. Star Wars fans would connect the scene to one at the beginning of the first 1977 film, when Luke Skywalker wistfully watches the dual suns of his home planet set; Star Trek's producers even called the scene "our Tatooine moment." Abrams has never exactly been a visionary artist, but he's a master of elevating the familiar—a fact made clear in the previews of his new Star Wars film, The Force Awakens.
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
And Americans? The land that gave the world the iPhone, the Declaration of Independence, and the Kinsey Report prefers emoji that depict technology, royalty, and… eggplants.
These preferences were revealed in a new report from SwiftKey, a software company that makes keyboards for iOS and Android phones. The report describes global trends in emoji usage and breaks them out by country and by language. Like nations themselves, it seems, emoji usage is also shaped by culture, climate, and geography.
What else did the report find? According to SwiftKey:
The most-used category of emoji used are “happy faces.” Happy faces, sad faces, and hearts make up more than 70 percent of global emoji usage.
“Oh my God, can you grab him?” I shouted at the woman at the door, as my 3-month-old puppy darted out into the cold and I tried to stop my 6-year-old twins from following suit. She obliged, and I was able to get a proper look at her. It was in the 30s outside, unseasonably cold for Florida, and the young woman holding my squiggling puppy was wearing nothing but a light spring sweater, shivering and looking miserable. I invited her in.
Over a cup of coffee, she introduced herself as Tysharia Young and tried to do what she’d come to do: sell me overpriced magazine subscriptions. It was not the first time someone had knocked on my door for this purpose, and I was sure it wouldn’t be the last. Gainesville has had such issues with magazine sellers that our local police department recently issued a public warning.
In the shower I share with my three roommates in my apartment in Mexico City, there are all the things you’d expect to see: a few bottles of Body Shop-brand shampoos and conditioners, and a bar of soap—the organic-looking brown kind with tiny splinters of unrefined material protruding from the surface. But there are also two bottles of Lactacyd, a brand of feminine wash.
“You should use it,” my roommate tells me. She’s an astute, outspoken woman in her early 30s who works as a journalist for one of Mexico’s most well-known liberal magazines. “It’s meant to get rid of or prevent infections,” she said.
For more than half a century, douches, or feminine washes, have been a staple in pharmacies throughout the world. Yet, here in the Distrito Federal, douching is a trend that seems to have gained serious momentum in the last two years, according to Karla Font, a Distrito Federal-based gynecologist with many patients who actively douche. A worker at Farmacía Paris in the Historic District told me that every day they sell at least 30 bottles.
One of the hazards of being paid to think out loud is that most ideas are wrong, and some of those wrong ideas are bound to be yours.
Several years ago, I wrote a column with Jordan Weissmann, now the senior business and economics correspondent for Slate, about how young people, gutted by the Great Recession, might turn against the culture of suburban homes and cars, the two big-ticket items that have powered the country through previous recessions. For many years, my chief frustration with the article was that the only words that commenters seemed to read were also the only three words we didn't write: "The Cheapest Generation," which was the headline. But this week, I have another frustration with the article, which is that, inconveniently, reality is messing with our prediction.
The video, 25 years later, is almost as recognizable as the song itself, even though it conjures up images of soft-focus karaoke backing tracks and a million drunken vocal renditions of heartbreak. The camera scans over a road flanked on either side by tall trees, while a figure clad in black walks across the screen. Then there’s a misty shot of a bridge, a couple of pigeons flap their wings, and Sinead O’Connor’s face comes into focus: shorn, oval-eyed, seemingly disembodied, and completely indelible.
“It’s been seven hours,” she sings, “and fifteen days/ Since you took your love away.” Beneath her vocals, there’s just the sound of a single synthesized string note, before the drum track kicks in on the seventh line, just as O’Connor’s voice becomes an unmistakably Gaelic wail: “I can eat my dinner in a fancy restaurant/ But nothing/ I said nothing can take away these blues.”
The Russian president’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, didn’t use that expression when we talked by phone, but that’s what he described to me: a man at the center of an ever-churning machine processing vast amounts of news and data at his command.
“Sometimes we’re wondering what is the limit for a human being for absorbing this huge amount of information,” Peskov told me, “but, well, it’s really a very, very, very heavy job.”
Peskov, speaking fluent English, described the operation. “First of all, the information and press department of the presidential administration prepares digests on print media, on Internet sources, on domestic media—federal and regional.
“We have special people working around the clock, preparing TV digests. We’re recording TV news on the [Russian] federal channels for him during the day. Obviously, it’s very hard for him to watch news so we make digests, let’s say, zip versions of TV news, divided into issues.”
In 1979, almost a year into the papacy of John Paul II, a novel called The Vicar of Christ spent 13 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. The work of a Princeton legal scholar, Walter F. Murphy, it featured an unlikely papal candidate named Declan Walsh—first a war hero, then a United States Supreme Court justice, and then (after an affair and his wife’s untimely death) a monk—who is summoned to the throne of Saint Peter by a deadlocked, desperate conclave.
Once elevated, Walsh takes the name Francesco—that is, Francis—and sets about using the office in extraordinary ways. He launches a global crusade against hunger, staffed by Catholic youth and funded by the sale of Vatican treasures. He intervenes repeatedly in world conflicts, at one point flying into Tel Aviv during an Arab bombing campaign. He lays plans to gradually reverse the Church’s teachings on contraception and clerical celibacy, and banishes conservative cardinals to monastic life when they plot against him. He flirts with the Arian heresy, which doubted Jesus’s full divinity, and he embraces Quaker-style religious pacifism, arguing that just-war theory is out of date in an age of nuclear arms and total war. (This last move eventually gets him assassinated, probably by one of the governments threatened by his quest for peace.)